The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is an atoll nation (one of only four in the world) consisting of 29 atolls with many small islets and five islands. The islands and islets are divided into two long island chains – Ratak in the east, and Ralik to the west.
Located in the central Pacific just north of the equator it is one of the most remote island nations in the world. Marshall Island’s remoteness has helped it maintain an intact traditional culture (most noticeable in the outer islands), an abundance of marine life (the largest shark sanctuary in the world), and hundreds of ecologically rich uninhabited islands that are home to many endemic species and carbon-dense forests.
Conversely, its geographical isolation has also lent to ecologically devastating scenarios such as the testing of U.S. nuclear bombs off the outer islands after WWII. Wreck diving in Marshall Islands is some of the most spectacular in the world, with many fish and marine animals thriving in the “ship graveyards” around the islands.
The best wreck diving is in Bikini Atoll, where a huge U.S. naval aircraft carrier and a Japanese warship are submerged in the lagoon. Experienced divers can also check out wrecks at Rongelap Atoll and Kwajalein Atoll. See Zay Harding’s epic Marshall Islands wreck diving expedition in Globe Trekker: Isolated Islands.
For anyone who wants to escape to an island nation rich in history with thousands of uninhabited Pacific islets surrounded by uninhibited blue skies, turquoise water, and coconut palm rimmed beaches, Marshall Islands is an intriguing destination.
It lies far off the trodden path, and is one place that remains undiscovered by even the most well versed travelers.
Currency is the US dollar dollar ($). It’s best to come with dollars in advance, as there are not many places to exchange money on the islands, and exchange rates may be poor. Credit cards are accepted in some places in Majuro, though not widely outside the capital. It’s best to take care of money matters in Majuro or Ebeye.
A couple of major airlines offer flights to and from the international airport in Majuro (Marshall Islands International Airport) and Kwajalein atoll. The domestic airline, Air Marshall Islands, offers inter-island services, though flight schedules can be unpredictable and delays are common.
Visitors can travel between the outer islands by yacht or other boat. By sea, the trip can take many hours depending on where you are headed. Taxis are available in Majuro and Ebeye. There is a boat service that travels to the outer islands from the dock in Majuro. Check times and schedule locally as it varies.
The people of Marshall Islands are mostly Marshallese, descendants of the earliest arriving inhabitants. There is also a U.S. military presence, as a result of which there are a number of Americans who have settled in the cities and on the base. Other cultures represented include German, Japanese, and Filipino.
Courtesy, respect (especially for elders and class ‘superiors’ such as chiefs), and connection are important values in Marshallese society. There is a strong social bond shared between islanders, and within clans and extended families. Marshallese are kind people who generally welcome visitors with hospitality and openness, though it is important for visitors to be aware of cultural differences to avoid potential misunderstandings.
There is a strong oral tradition in Marshallese culture, which is most intact in the outer islands. The majority of the population reside in urbanized Majuro and Ebeye.
Marshallese are famous for their exceptional canoe building and navigation skills. They originally used stick charts, which they memorized prior to a journey, to traverse the waters between the thousands of islets that make up what is now the Marshall Islands. They harbored extensive knowledge of ocean swells, currents, and astronomy which they used to help them navigate between the islands.
Canoe travel is less common as transportation these days, though the Marshallese maintain a strong connection and reverence for earth and sea.
Elaborate tattoos were formerly the custom in RMI and often represented symbols evocative of the ocean. Repetitive patterns rife with symbolism were etched into the backs, arms, thighs and legs of both men and women in the Marshall Island atolls for hundreds of years. Women’s tattoos were ordinarily kept to the arms, shoulders, and thighs, while male tattoos were more extensive. Tattooing was done in elaborate, sometimes month long ceremonies, to the beat of drums which helped dull the pain.
The traditional clan system is still very much a part of society and politics in RMI. Iroij, or chiefs, still hold political power in the Marshall Islands. Large extended families are divided into close knit units, with land being passed down by maternal lines. Land ownership is very important in Marshallese culture.
Marshallese are renown throughout the Pacific for their beautiful crafts. They weave bags, baskets, fans, hats, mats, and other decorative items using natural materials such as pandanus leaves, coconut fiber, and shells.
Agriculture is limited in the Marshall Islands. Predominant crops include breadfruit, banana, pandanus, coconut, and other fruits as well as some vegetables which are usually cultivated in small gardens.
Arrowroot is grown in the dry northern areas, where it is processed and dried to produce a starchy, nutrient dense flour. Delicious pies and tarts are made with locally grown macadamia nuts.
Fish and seafood are natural staples in the RMI. Chicken, beef, pork, and canned meat are also widely consumed. Popular preparation for meats and seafood is grilling or braising. Due to the scarcity of arable land and challenging growing conditions, much of the food that is eaten today is imported.
The official languages of Marshall Islands are Marshallese (a Malayo-Polynesian language) and English. Different Marshallese dialects have developed in each of the two island chains, though the differences are minor.
Health facilities are limited on these remote islands. The main islands of Majuro and Ebeye each have one hospital, and a couple of private clinics. It is possible to get some basic supplies in the outer islands, but services are very limited. It is advised to have all the medications and medical supplies you need for the duration of your trip before arriving in the Marshall Islands.
Insect borne diseases can be transmitted by sand flies and mosquitoes, so it’s best to avoid getting bitten by covering your skin with light clothing and wearing insect repellent. In some areas poor sanitation or limited access to clean water may pose a risk. Tuberculosis has been of increasing concern in recent years, especially in developing urban environments. It is best to check the current situation before arriving and to be up to date with recommended vaccinations.
A visa is not required for visitors from the U.S., U.K., European Union nations, or most Pacific Islands territories. All others require a visa. Visitors must have a valid passport (valid for at least 60 days after arrival) as well as an onward ticket, or proof of sufficient funds to exit the country.
When to Go
Temperatures are about 80 degrees F throughout the year, with little variation. It is generally hot and humid, even during a bout of tropical rain. The wet season runs from May to November.
Local dress is generally casual, ‘island style’, though slightly conservative. At the very least, women must cover their thighs. Most women wear long skirts or short sleeved muumuus (even when swimming), which cover their shoulders and legs.
Visiting women can wear bathing suits when swimming but should cover up in a sarong or wrap on the beach or in public and should not wear tight pants, shorts, or bathing suits in the city. Pants are acceptable for foreign women, though local women don’t normally wear them. Sandals are the norm for both men and women. Men typically wear long pants and casual buttoned shirts or t-shirts. Light, long sleeved tops and pants are recommended for protection from sand flies and mosquitoes.
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